Classical War and Modern Peace
Professor of Classics at California State University at Fresno gave the following lecture at UNH on October 28, 2002 as part of the John C. Rouman Classical Lecture Series.
-- by Dr. Victor Hanson
What can a small ancient society teach us about modern warfare, in an industrial age of high-tech weaponry and global communications? Indeed, it is hard enough to make easy generalizations about classical Greek warfare itself that spanned centuries among some 1,000 or more city-states against both foreign and Hellenic enemies. Greek battle could involve hoplites, triremes, horsemen, and light-armed troops in service to oligarchy, democracy, and autocracy. And what the philosophers and historians such as Plato and Thucydides said about war in the abstract is sometimes not always supported by the concrete accounts of hundreds of recorded battles. Nevertheless, from both the historical record and the observations of Greek thinkers a few general trends emerge about war at the beginning of Western civilization that perhaps are worth remembering in the present conflict.
While Greeks deplored the tragic nature of wara time, according to Herodotus, when fathers buried sons rather than sons fathersthey seemed to have been resigned to its ubiquity and apparent centrality to the human condition. War was the chief topic of Homeric epic, the predominant theme of the historians Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybius, and the backdrop of much of Greek tragedy. Few citizens of any class were immune from it. At the siege of Samos in 440 B.C., Sophocles was part of the Athenian high command under Pericles, waging war against an enemy that included Melissus, the student of Parmenides. Although Sophocles could dub conflict "hateful," Pindar "a thing of fear," and Thucydides "a great folly," Plato's Cretan stranger nevertheless called peace a brief parenthesis from an ongoing "undeclared war" that was the natural condition of the city-states. Conflict, the pre-Socratic Heraclitus reminds us, is the "king" and "father" of us all.
It is often pointed out that a majestic Athens fought two out of every three years of the fifth century. And what strikes the student of Greek history is the reoccurrence of familiar places and namesthe first and second battles of Coronea and Mantinea, the first and second Peloponnesian Wars, two Persian Wars, and several Sacred Wars. Epaminondas called the great plain of Boeotia "the dancing floor of war"and indeed ten major battles took place within a few miles radius of ancient Thebes.
War's ubiquity was thus accepted; and in response the Greeks sought not to outlaw it so much as to regulate or at least ameliorate traditional hoplite battles through various customs, institutions, and protocols. With varying success, they tried to implement the "laws of the Greeks" by agreeing to employ heralds, ensure the sanctity of civilians, protect prisoners, limit pursuit, and exchange the dead. Such agreements worked well enough when battles were periodical and of limited duration among neighbors, but eroded when campaigning was perennial and fighting evolved from disputes over common borders to questions of regional hegemony, empire, and the very survival of city-states such as Plataea, Melos, or Mycalessus during the Peloponnesian War.
If hostilities were common, and accepted as such, what were the origins of such wars? Ostensibly the most frequent catalysts of conflict were borderlands. Plato's Socrates in the Republic assumed that states would continually be plagued with such disputes over bordersan empirical observation when we remember the hotspots of Greek history were the upland plateaus of Thyreatis between Argos and Laconia, the Mantinean-Tegean border, land between Megara and Corinth, and the constant squabbling over the Oropos. And given the hundreds of such highland plains and foothills that served to separate the hinterlands of so many city-states, chronic fighting over these strips is indeed not surprising. But were such border wars predicated on real economic need and the desire for vital agricultural or grazing land per se?
Traditionalists tend to look to property, booty, and other material incentives as the concrete causes of warsrecalling Aristotle's remark that war is a means of acquisition or noting the prominence of cattle raiding in Greek literature. Anthropologists instead are as likely to prefer to see ritual and cult behind most fighting. In their view, rites of initiation or passage, the taking of captives, and displays of male prowess, rather than purely political or economic impulses, drive men to campaign against one another. And in the case of the borders of ancient Greece what is striking is their rather unimportance in purely economic terms.
Most such strips, like the eschatiai between Thebes and Athens or Argos and Sparta, were marginal propertiesseemingly not so critical to any city-state's survival. Rather, we should imagine that in largely agrarian societies even such marginal lands represented civic prestige. Loss or acquisition of honor, fear that the loss of border land might encourage even greater aggression, and the self-interest in establishing the precedent that city-states were autonomous and could protect their interests as they saw best were all notions that collided on the border.
Indeed, in Thucydides' history this notion of fear, self-interest, and honor is said by the Athenians to be the reason why states become imperial or go to war. Sparta, in Thucydides' mind, did not attack Athens because of the Megarian decree or other economic grievances and alliances per se, but because of a "fear" of the growth of Athenian power. Rightly or wrongly, it was at least alleged that many Greek states went to war over perceived, rather than real, threats to their economic livelihood or political stability.
We see the role of such pride in the traditional tactic of ravaging cropland. Destroying olives and vines was not easy, especially in the customarily short spring invasions of May and June, when countermeasures, lack of supplies, and enemy evacuation could further diminish the effectiveness of the tactic. Instead, the idea of trespassing, of trying to cut and burn ancestral groves and vineyards, was felt to be catalyst enough to bring out farmer-hoplites to the field of battle. The abandonment of the chora of Attica, so central to Themistoclean and Periclean strategy, was thus seen as especially egregious to most Greeks because it was antithetical to the proud Hellenic idea of the inviolability of property and the supremacy of agrarian life. No wonder, despite Pericles' public efforts to withdraw the rural citizenry inside the walls of Athens, that most Greeks nevertheless felt that Athens would not withstand the Spartan invasions of the Archidamian War. What Greek state, after all, could or wouldendure to see its farms attacked with impunity without losing all sense of civic dignity?
If notions of pride, honor, fear, and perceived self-interest were at the heart of wars and gave pretexts to bellicose leaders, what conditions permitted conflict actually to break out? Why did Sparta think it could simply start a war by invading Attica in 431, or again march into Boeotia with regularity between 379 and 371 B.C.or in turn what accounted for the Theban grandiose scheme to enter Laconia in December 370? A reductionist cynic might answer 'because they thought they could get away with it.' Athens, for example, had no immediate strategy, either through fortifications, garrisons, or hoplite encounters, of keeping the Spartans out of Attica. Its hope instead rested in a more long-term policy of attrition, of riding out the invasions and sending out cavalry patrols, while sea-borne raids around the Peloponnese might prompt Spartans to look homeward. Despite cavalry protection and an enormous wooden stockade built around some of the most fertile Boeotia farmland, the Theban confederacy could not stop the Spartan inroads until its hoplites nearly destroyed their army at Leuctra in 371a startling reversal of fortune that convinced Epaminondas that a weakened Sparta now possessed no deterrence, and, in fact, for the first time in 600 years might be invaded with impunity.
Perhaps the Theban general Pagondassome 800 years before Vegetius wrote that "he who wishes peace, should prepare for war"summed up the Greek notion of deterrence best when he addressed his hoplites before the battle of Delion (424 B.C.), and urged them not to let a retreating Athenian army escape from Boeotia:
It is your national habit to resist a foreign invader, regardless of whether he is in your country or not and when that invader is Athenian, and lives upon your frontier as well, it is doubly imperative to do so. As between neighbors generally, freedom means simply a determination to hold one's own; and with neighbors like these, who are trying to enslave near and far alike, there is nothing else but to fight it out to the last.
Pagondas went on to advocate a strategy of preemption against the Athenians:
Besides people who, like the Athenians in the present instance, are tempted by pride of strength to attack their neighbors, usually march most confidently against those who keep still, and only defend themselves in their own country, but think twice before they grapple with those who meet them outside their frontier and 1 strike the first blow if opportunity offers.
In the subsequent close-fought battle, the Boeotians went on to rout the Athenians. Such a setback convinced the latter not to invade again; and, as Pagondas predicted, after Delion the Boeotian countryside was never again entered in force by any army from Athens.
If many disagreements, then, could originate over intangibles such as pride, fear, or perceived self-interest, and lead to real war should an adversary think its enemy would, in Pagondas's words, "keep still", what ended conflict? The Greeks were committed to diplomacy and sent heralds back and forth among the city-states with regularity; indeed, we often hear of several armistices that interrupt hostilities. Much of Aristophanes' comediesAcharnians, Peace, and Lysistrataadvocate a cessation of fighting without clear-cut victory.
Yet, more often war ended for good only when one side capitulated and found itself no longer able or willing to wage war on the premises that had first led it to conflict. Marathon (490) saw the defeat of a Persian army, but neither its destruction nor the humiliation of the invadersand so within a decade the Persians were back in Attica. However, in 480 B.C. Xerxes' armada was nearly ruined at Salamis and his remaining land forces essentially wiped out at Plataea the next yearensuring that no Persian army would again invade Greece. The so-called first Peloponnesian War ended in stalemate and truce and was followed a decade and a half later by the invasion of Attica in 431 B.C. The Peace of Nicias of 421 B.C. stopped for a time, but did not end, the killing. Such a resolution was only accomplished with the utter defeat of Athens in 404 and the end of its imperial system. Sparta ceased invading its neighbors to the north only when Epaminondas freed the Messenian helots, encouraged the construction of fortified cities in the Peloponnese such as Messene, Megalopolis, and Mantinea, and so made Sparta's adventuresome strategy too risky. In contrast, Philip stopped his aggrandizement only after Chaeronea; and in the turmoil following his death Alexander put down renewed war by the destruction of Thebes and the crushing of Greek resistance.
In short, more lasting peace was usually obtained through the defeat of one of the two parties at war, which brought recognition that their antebellum stance was no longer tenable. Athens gave up interfering on Sicily when its entire expeditionary force was ruined and it lacked the material resources and spiritual will power to renew the effort. The first battle of Mantinea in 418 B.C. brought an end to the idea of an independent and democratic Argos as a counterweight to Sparta. Although we hear much of the value and need for mediation, more lasting peace, for good or evil, was usually achieved when one party either could not or would not resume hostilities and thus agreed to the concessions of the victorwhich, if it was wise, usually sought to construct some type of an equitable postbellum framework that might preclude future hostilities.
Perhaps most depressing to consider is the occasional utility of ancient warfare. Sparta entered a 50-year rivalry with Athens following the Persian withdrawal after 479. And it ended its dispute not with reconciliation or mediation but with the utter collapse of the Athenian empire. It is unlikely that Xerxes would have withdrawn from Greece had he not lost so many of his ships at Salamis and most of his army at Plataea. Nor would Sparta have voluntarily vacated Boeotia had its army not been crushed at Leuctra and many of its helots freed the next spring in Messenia. Warif one were an Athenian in 480, a Spartan in 431, or a helot in 369possessed a certain utility, either in guaranteeing freedom, ending fear, or providing liberation.
Of course, many, if not most, battles were fought for what we would now call no good reasonbutchering the neutral Melians, slaughtering the schoolboys at Mycalessus or trying to enslave the democratic Syracusans. To the Greeks war was so often tragic and amoral in that it gave state-sanction to kill with impunity young men at the prime of life, often at the orders of those older and more prosperous. But it was not necessarily therein immoral on every occasion. In times where an aggressor threatened to kill or enslave, or in instances where diplomacy was exhausted and the alternative was extinction, the Greeks, like Pagondas, felt that fighting, even if through preemption, was not only necessary but morally justified.
I would not wish clumsily to apply these lessons from a small ancient agricultural society to the complexity of the modern world. Nevertheless, because war possessed a universality, and since the Greeks recorded and commented upon what they had experienced in such detail and with such prescience, perhaps we could learn something in our present crisis from the general lessons of classical warfare. Do modern examples bear out the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, and if so, could it be true that war remains ubiquitous, is often fought over perceived rather than real grievances, breaks out when one side believes the advantages of war outweigh it risks, concludes with victory or defeat, and on occasion solves rather than aggravates problems?
We sometimes have assumed in our contemporary pride and affluence that war is altogether rareor, in fact, "unnatural" to the human species. A United Nations body of experts in 1986 declared war antithetical to man's nature, as an array of behavioralists added that we have no innate bellicosity in our genesgiving "scientific" weight in turn to our sociologists and political scientists who favor international conferences and peacekeepers in lieu of U.S. carriers and Special Forces. Peace, in contrast, is assumed the natural order of events.
Yet much of our recent history seems to sustain the lessons from ancient Greece. It would be hard to find a year in the twentieth century in which American troops were not fighting some type of small-scale war in South America, the Pacific, Asia, or Africa. Americans often assume that we have not really been at war since Vietnamforgetting in the last two decades alone the occasional bloody fighting in Lebanon, Panama, Grenada, the Gulf, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Afghanistan. And the enemies in those conflicts have never been either uniform or predictable, as we have tried to enforce armistices, overthrown right-wing dictators, kicked out left-wing strongmen, reclaimed entire countries, escorted oil tankers, stopped the genocide of Muslims, feed the starving, and shut down a country-size Islamic terrorist haven.
Almost every region of the globe in just the last decade or two has been in turmoil. India has fought three wars against Pakistan for Kashmir. Nearby China has engaged in border skirmishes with Russia and invaded Vietnamafter annexing and occupying Tibet. And the former Soviet Union, whether Russian against Chechnyan or Azerbajanian against Armenian, has been in as much commotion as during the Cold War when the communist empire invaded Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Afghanistan. We should keep in mind that more people have been killed in fighting in the fifty years of "peace" since, rather than during, the great tragedy of World War II that saw fifty million dead.
Recently, we are sometimes told the causes of the horrific killing of September 11 are twofold: ignorance and misunderstandingcan we better understand radical Islam? Seek to fathom bin Laden's grievances? Indeed, some have urged us to abstain from the use of force and first to look inward at an array of elements of American policy in the Middle East that are offensiveour troops being stationed in the autocratic Gulf States, aid to Israel, or perhaps our own crass culture's intrusion into traditional Islamic societyto fathom the reasons for September 11. Yet such an effort in sorting through the various causes of the fundamentalists' ire might be as vain an attempt as asking why Xerxes invaded Greece, or viewing September 1,1939 through Hitler's eyes. The Fuhrer created the myth of a crowded Germany, without ample living room, subject to humiliating conditions from World War I, sapped by Jewish financiers, without any choices but war to feed and house a surrounded and aggrieved German peoplea more alluring myth than the more cynical reality that Nazism promised wealth, status, and power to Germans without the price of sacrificeas much an apparent bargain in 1939 as it was confirmed to them a nightmare by 1945.
Hunger, even when juxtaposed with affluence, need not cause warswitness the fact that Peruvians are not marching against Chileans; nor are Mexicans suicide-bombing San Diego shopping centers. But as we have seen from the Greeks, poverty is not necessarily a reason in and of itself to attack one's neighbors. Xerxes did not need Greece's land or riches; nor did Thebes desire the land or money of Sparta. The West Bank has been the recipient of billions in aid from the European Union and the United States during the last decade; its hatred of Israel just as likely arises out of a Thucydidean sense of humiliation in losing land and prestige to a nearby proud and antithetical power rather than endemic poverty. Indeed, the September 11 suicide-murders were not the dividends of the exasperated and impoverished of Cairo, but rather carried out by the upscale and educatedand bankrolled by a multimillionaire psychopath.
The frequently cited cause of "illegal" occupation of territory can, but need not, incite conflict either; otherwise Tibetans would be terrorizing Chinese while Greek Cypriots might be blowing up Turkish pizzerias. As of yet we do not hear that present-day Germany wishes to attack Poland and France for the sizable^hunks of the fatherland that were lost to both after 1945. Nor is Japan intent on attacking Russia for its continual occupation of its own islands. Thus to fathom why some border disputes invite war and others do not is to see some affinity with that classical wisdom: that reasons other than real grievances can often be at the core of fightingconsiderations such as relative power, alliances, the anger or pride of a people, the nature of government, the existence or absence of deterrence, and the past history of the contested area.
And just because nations are aggressive, reckless, or evil and so seek advantages at the expense of their neighbors or rivals does necessarily mean war shall always break out. Accidents, of course, and miscommunications, in theory, can trigger wars, but in fact miscalculations usually simply hasten the outbreak of a war that more likely already unavoidable. Despite common belief, rarely does fighting occur because of a failed radio signal or a poor translation of a leader* s communique"unless it is a question of telegraphing a willingness not to retaliate in the face of aggression. Such was the case of the American ambassador to Iraq in summer 1990, who apparently gave the impression to Saddam Hussein that her government would not consider his invasion of Kuwait of interest to the United States.
Instead, once again the lessons of the Greeks remind us that the greater danger is a lack of deterrence. Persia invaded Greece in 490 B.C. sensing weakness. After repulse at Marathon, but not a defeat of their armada, they returned in 480 B.C. The catastrophes of Salamis and Plataea, however, convinced them that the Greeks were willing and able to defeat themand so they never invaded the mainland again. By the same token, the experience of the Ten Thousand and King Agesilaos in Asia perhaps convinced Greeks that Persians were not credible foessetting the stage for the later Macedonian belief that victory over the Persian Empire was entirely possible.
The Cuban missile crisis did not erupt into a nuclear conflagration merely because our hot line with the Soviets was error-free and so ensured reliable communications between Kennedy and Khrushaev. More likely overwhelming American nuclear superiority convinced the Russians to remove their weapons from Castro's island. So far what has prevented Pakistan from bowing to its extremists and attacking India directly is its clear perception that it would lose both a conventional and a nuclear war. Such a balance of power can operate in reverse as well in the nuclear age. Pakistan's nuclear missiles are plentiful enough to suggest to India that its likely victory with tanks and troops could be lost through a nightmarish nuclear exchange that would kill millions of its ownvictory in essence costing nearly as much as defeat.
By such classical reckoning, al Qaeda attacked our iconic buildings and slaughtered our citizens not because we were particularly anti-Islamicwho, after all, other than us, had saved Afghanistan from godless communism, Kuwait from a rapacious Iraq, Muslim Bosnians and Kosovars from murderous Christian Serbs, and Islamic Somalians from each other? Once more, alleged rather than true gripesfear of Western popular culture and anger at American presence in the Middle Eastand a desire for a return of a thirteenth-century pan-Islamic caliphate more likely created the anger. During the prior decade the lack of a strong American response after attacks on our forces in Lebanon, the Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and during the first World Trade Center bombing emboldened bin Laden, and suggested to him that Americans either could or would not respond in a forceful way to threaten his operations. Perception and rhetoric can convinceoften wrongly and to their ultimate destructionstates and terrorists alike that aggression may bring benefits at little risk.
If we could ask the dour and pessimistic Pagondas, the Theban general, what was at the heart of the current crisis in the Middle East, he might not necessarily request to see a map of Israeli settlements or review purported infractions of the Oslo accords. Instead, he might emphasize the failure of Israel to retaliate to the dozens of SCUD missiles that Saddam Hussein rained in on Tel-Aviv to the cheers of nearby Palestinians, the unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon without conditions, and the willingness to hand over ninety-six percent of the West Bankand then conclude that Israel's enemies perceived a new and growing unwillingness on the part of the Jewish state to reply to challenges. Such realism is not to discount the real and legitimate grievances of the Palestiniansindeed Athens felt that it had good cause to invade Boeotia in 424 B.C. but only to suggest why such disputes led to violence when they did.
How will our own war with the terrorists end? It would be comforting to suggest diplomacy, if it cannot always prevent wars, at least can usually bring them to a rapid close without much bloodshed. Such was the case in the Middle East where the first five conflicts1947,1956, 1967,1973, and 1982ended through the pressures of Europe, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But note the conflict continues there two decades after the war in Lebanon, perhaps because neither side has yet been allowed either to win or lose decisively on the battlefield. Vietnam differs from Korea, because the American people gave up the struggle and lost Saigon. In contrast, the armistice of 1953 means that we still worry about nuclear-tipped missiles in North Koreadespite a "peace" of a half-century in which Seoul regularly undergoes massive air raid drills. Saddam Hussein was bloodied in 1991, but his survival means that a decade later the same old concerns about chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons continue to haunt us. Interrupted wars rarely bring immediate peace, but rather simply raise the hopes on both sides that their enemies will slowly be worn down or demoralized in an extended cold warand thus at some future date either give up or be unable to reinitiate hostilities. Such was the case between 490 and 480 B.C. and then again between 421 and 415 B.C.
In contrast, clear victory can settle long-existing problems immediately in a way negotiated armistices cannot, as wounds are closed rather than allowed to fester for decades. Had George McClellan won the election of 1864, a negotiated peace may have temporarily prevented another Antietam, but such a helium interruptum certainly would have meant another generation of slavery and soon another round of fighting with weapons far more deadly that what finally appeared in 1865. In this regard, we should recall the exhausted German army of 1918 perhaps qualitatively the most deadly infantry force the world had yet seensurrendered in France, not Germany, claiming it had never been defeated in the field, but rather was "stabbed in the back" by "Jews, Communists, and traitors" in Germany. The idea of a victory march into and occupation of Germany was overruled by President Wilson; such utopianism was not repeated by the Allies in World War II, when the Third Reich and Japan were not merely defeated, but humiliated, their homelands occupied, and their machinery of government radically transformed.
Criticism is often voiced of stern demands for "unconditional surrender", firmness that purportedly causes needless casualties like Hiroshima and prolongs the misery of war as defeated powers dig in rather than have their homelands occupied or destroyed. Yet in the long run an insistence on abject surrender saves lives when regimes capitulate rather than bargain their way out of humiliation. Japanese citizens vote today because of the beating their grandfathers took on Okinawa and on the homeland from the US Army Air Corps; yet, had we brokered a deal after Iwo Jima, the imperial government may well have endured and been as provocative today as is North Koreaa regime that in fact never surrendered to the United States. The fourth-century B.C. second Athenian league made it a point not to impose tribute on its allies in the manner of its fifth century empire because it had seen that the wages of the resulting animosity had once led to Spartan hoplites on the Acropolis.
In this regard, one unforeseen consequence that arose out of the otherwise brilliant European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century was the modem spread of the canard that evil per se did not necessarily exist by nature, but rather was a logical symptom of ignorance, poverty, or other environmental pathologyand thus could be remedied by the requisite amount of education, money, compassion, or material aid. Consequently, liberal states that are locked in disputes with evil autocracies sometimesand dangerously solook inward first in stunned disbelief, and then often engage in self-censure at the deteriorating state of affairs. Both recently and in the past, Western intellectuals have pondered: had the French and English unfairly cornered an embattled Hitler, deaf to his real grievances from World War I? Did we provoke Japan by cutting off oil exports? And did the American failure to embrace a young Ho or Mao guarantee that their later regimes would in exasperation turn hostile toward us? How else could we account for their inexplicable hatred if not for some culpability or lapse of reason on our part? How reductionist it was to simply conclude that fascists and communists always strive for the maintenance and expansion of their own power and so must fear elected democracies.
We should not welcome, but perhaps concede the occasional utility of waror at least the use of military force to stop aggression, dismantle malevolent states, and kill leadership intent on harming tens of thousands of innocents. The great ills of the last three centuries were largely ameliorated by war, not mediation. Our own freedom from monarchy and tyranny was achieved at Yorktown, and not through shuttle diplomacy with London. Without war, America for good or evil would today probably resemble Canada that nearly a century after 1776 gradually and peacefully evolved toward independence, rather than our own unique and more vibrant culture of radical egalitarianism, individualism', and economic dynamism than was bom from musket fire.
A series of compromises for most of the first half of the nineteenth century did not end chattel slavery in America, but rather only prolonged and perhaps in some sense exacerbated the divide between South and North. Instead, Lincoln, with his brilliant captains, Grant and Sherman, at a cost of some 600,000 dead and billions in property and capital losses, nevertheless subdued the South in less than four yearsa country as large as western Europeand ensured an end to slavery for good.
The four great plagues of the twentieth centuryGerman nazism, Italian fascism, Japanese militarism, and Soviet communismwere all ended either through outright fighting or the threat of war, the butcher* s bill made worse by the delay in using force to thwart such murderous regimes in their infancies. Again, the ancient Greeks kept their freedom only through heroics at Salamis, and Plataea. A century-and-a-half after hundreds of thousands of Persians had been defeated and routed, anotherand very differentgeneration of Greeks could not keep a few thousands of Macedonians from doing what Xerxes could not. There were thousands of resolute fighters like Themistocles in 480 B.C., but not so many by 348 B.C. who still believed in preventing a foreign invasion from the north, despite the similarly prescient warnings of Demosthenes.
Appeasement of the 1930s, not Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944, is what ultimately cost thousands of American livesand far more European dead. We should remember that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao killed more civilians outside the battlefieldperhaps altogether 100 million in the Holocaust, collectivizations, gulags, purges, and various cultural revolutionsthan all the soldiers and innocents lost to the fighting of World War I and II combined. The Hutus of Rwanda and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge butchered millions in executions, not through armed conflict. Yet both slaughters could have been stopped by early and determined armed intervention by superior military force.
Sometimes the early use of overwhelming military power can settle issues quickly, humiliate aggressive but weak leaders, and thus result in a change of government that benefits all parties to the conflict, especially in the case of illegitimate governments which rule without a true consensus of the people. The British decision to invade the Falklands not only expelled the Argentinean aggressors, but discredited military rule in Argentina and gave democracy a chance to displace the generalsneither would have been possible through negotiations alone.
By the same token, President Bush's decision to strike early against Afghanistan (less than four weeks after September 11) and with overwhelming power to rout the Taliban, cost less than a dozen American lives, and perhaps less than 1,000 Afghan civilians, in freeing an entire country from a medieval and murderous government that had butchered tens of thousands and turned the entire region into an international haven for terrorists. Despite civilian losses in Panama and a few dozen American dead, recent years without General Noriega have proved far better for both Panamanians and the United States.
Sometimes the curtailment of war before its natural denouement can result in consequences more murderous than what transpires during the fighting itself. Patton's Third Army was within days of occupying Prague, Czechoslovakia in May, 1945. The Supreme Allied Commander's orders to cease his advance ensured thousands of Czech insurrectionists would be killed by Nazis in the last days of the warand that the entire country would suffer a tyrannical communist slavery for a subsequent half century. The suspension of the final successful bombing of Hanoi with first-generation "smart bombs" targeted at the communist elite ensured North Vietnamese aggression and violation of the Januaryl973 Peace accordsand ultimately the murder, internment, or exile of between 1.5 and 2 million Vietnamese. We do not know how many Kurds and Shiites were butchered by Saddam Hussein after the armistice of 1991, but thousands of women and children were murdered roughly in sight of allied troops who were under orders not to intervene. War is a terrible thing, but sometimes there are events even worsewhose remedies are found only in fighting.
Ample defense spending is critical in times of peace when prosperity and occasional license convince free citizens that Plato's idea of war as a "parenthesis" is mistaken, and that we have instead reached a new level of perpetual understanding and enlightenment, far removed from the shoving and elbowing of a Hobbes unending "war of everyone against everyone". American military poweraugmented and enhanced years before Mullah Omar was even knownensured that we could destroy the Taliban and bring in better government in Afghanistan in six weeks. In contrast, the prior impression that we were afraid to use it may well have encouraged the suicide murderers of September 11. And had the terrorists hit the Eiffel Tower, it is not at all clear that either France or the European Union possessed either the ships, planes, or logistical capability to invade Afghanistan and defeat the Talibanor would have deemed itself too civilized to reply with brute force. Deterrence keeps the peace, but is only achievable through military powerand a clear indication to act when aggression proves immune to diplomacy.
Until the nature of man changes, such a pessimistic acknowledgment of endemic evil and the need to confront it with force seems the necessary course for national security. And we should also remember that our military is not always defensive and solely the insurer of our own survival, but in the last decades quite literally the only force in the world that could save captive Kuwaitis, starving Somalis, doomed Kosovars, or unfree Afghans.
In the last analysis, we hoped that reasoned negotiations could have given us our independence, eliminated slavery, shut down the death camps, or ended a Balkan holocaust; yet we accept in our imperfect world that sometimes such good and necessary things were instead brought about only through the unfortunate use of force. And in that bleak regard, we are not so different from the Greeks after all.